The Democratic leadership of New Jersey's State Assembly made public yesterday an ambitious plan designed to stimulate more affordable housing throughout the Garden State, where this issue has been a hot potato for three decades.

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, Jr. (D-Camden), a vocal advocate for affordable housing for several years, joined Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman and Assembly Speaker Pro-Tempore designate Jerry Green (D-Union) to unveil a 12-point plan aimed at reversing what they see as housing practices that block the creation and expansion of less-expensive rental and owner-occupied housing.

New Jersey has the second-highest monthly housing costs in the country, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. And the Washington-based Center for Housing Policy recently looked at 31 metro areas, and found that the 13 counties in northern and central New Jersey collectively are the sixth least-affordable area for working families that rent.

New Jersey has been at the center of the affordable housing debate since the so-called Mount Laurel decisions, dating back to the mid 1970s, which concluded that every municipality in the state had a constitutional obligation to provide its fair share of affordable housing. But those decisions sparked several rounds of litigation and the creation of what's known as "Regional Contribution Agreements," or RCAs, which allow municipalities and developers to "buy out" up to 50 percent of their obligations by paying other municipalities to make up the difference. Since 1988, 120 towns, most of them middle- and upper-income suburbs, have paid $210 million to 53 poorer communities to assume their affordable housing obligations, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.

Roberts calls RCAs "reprehensible," and in December 2006 introduced a bill, A-3857, to eliminate such trade-offs, which require approval by the state's Council on Affordable Housing (COAH). Getting rid of RCAs is one of a dozen affordable housing recommendations he and the other leaders have been working on for several months, and presented yesterday in Trenton.

Their 12-point plan also calls for:

  • requiring state development projects to include 20 percent affordable housing;
  • creating a centralized affordable housing trust fund that would become a "repository" of New Jersey's housing-related revenues, such as realty transfer fees;
  • allowing developers of inclusionary projects to compete for Federal low-income tax credits, which is currently prohibited;
  • requiring one-to-one replacement of affordable housing that's lost because of redevelopment or the application of eminent domain; and
  • mandating that towns spend municipal housing trust funds on affordable housing within their borders.

The lawmakers also want a permanent housing task force to come up with a comprehensive housing plan for the entire state, and for that task force to submit annual reports to the Legislature over the next 10 years.
Roberts says the Assembly would hold hearings on this proposal next month, and it could be put up for vote sometime in 2008. However, passage of any legislation is anything but a slam dunk. The New Jersey State League of Municipalities is dead-set against any repeal of RCAs. And urban areas may not want to relinquish RCA money that they've come to rely on for redevelopment and affordable housing needs. For example, the Home News Tribune, a regional daily newspaper, reports that New Brunswick has received nearly $23 million since 1986 through such agreements, accounting for 1,024 affordable housing units.

However, Democrats in the Assembly might have an ally in Governor Jon Corzine, who would need to sign off on such legislation. Corzine has pledged to build 100,000 affordable housing units over the next decade, but has been slow to get his effort off the ground. His administration is due to release new rules that will govern the building of affordable housing at the end of this year, when COAH is under court order to adopt rules for towns to follow that would end delays and start construction of affordable housing.

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